Associated Press Methane decision puts groundwater at risk, agency says
BUFFALO, Wyo. - The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency doesn't like the U.S. Bureau of Land Management's decision to allow additional coal bed methane development in northeastern Wyoming.
In an April 26 letter to Al Pierson, who heads the BLM in Wyoming, EPA Assistant Regional Administrator Max Dodson of Denver said the bureau's "finding of no significant impact" was inappropriate for the environmental assessment of 2,500 new "drainage wells."
The drainage wells are intended to protect federal gas from being siphoned off by wells that tap adjacent state and private gas reserves in the Powder River Basin.
The EPA letter said the BLM knows that downstream irrigators in Montana could be harmed by the underground water pumped to the surface in order to free the methane.
The BLM decision allowed the development to move forward without further study, but given the potential problems for irrigators, the BLM should have conducted a full environmental impact statement, Dodson wrote.
He said the BLM's own responses to EPA show that there is potential that the additional development could harm Montana irrigators, particularly with regard to a measurement of salinity, called the sodium adsorption ratio.
"EPA is concerned about potential impacts to crop production downstream of coal bed methane discharges in the Powder and Little Powder Rivers," Dodson said.
EPA officials say the letter carries no legal weight but is intended to notify BLM officials that EPA remains concerned about the potential effects on irrigators.
"This wasn't our only issue, we had other ones, but in the context of this letter we wanted to make it clear that on this issue we are in complete disagreement with BLM," said Greg Oberley, an environmental scientist with EPA in Denver. "This one really could have impacts on downstream irrigation."
BLM plans to address concerns raised by Dodson, said Richard Zander, who heads up coal bed methane issues out of the BLM's office in Buffalo.
"We are taking the letter and looking at their points to see if they have valid concerns or not, but we don't have a final feedback on it," Zander said.
Zander defended the BLM decision, saying that the risks to agriculture should be addressed by the state of Wyoming's discharge permit program, which is based on provisions of the federal Clean Water Act.
"Under that program, they have to ensure that not only is there not degradation to the state's waters but also to other states' waters," he said. "That is what we are relying on as part of the mitigation to support the finding of no significant impact."
Environmental regulators in Montana have argued that Wyoming's program does not adequately address potential problems as the water flows across the state line. The two states are in negotiations over the issue.